Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Channukah & Thanksgiving: It's Complicated

Channukah & Thanksgiving: It's Complicated
(c) Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Much has been made of the overlap of Channukah and Thanksgiving this year, a convergence that will not occur again for over 79,000 years. 
On the one hand, the meanings of the days are similar:
  • Channukah is a story of Jewish rededication, the Maccabees reclaiming contaminated sacred space, marking God's miraculous intervention in the military and ritual lives of our ancestors. 
  • Thanksgiving is an American story of bounty, gratitude expressed by formerly persecuted minorities, blessed to find home again through miraculous arrival.
But both these also narratives require of us, as American Jews, deeper and clearer thinking. Both holy days contain more within their stories than meets the eye, more than their ritualized re-tellings readily offer. The commonalities of these hidden, darker strata are also striking, perhaps even shocking:
  • Channukah is a serious challenge to the modern Jew, as comfortable (if not more) living as a global citizen than being seen as a Jew. Channukah's notion of the "contamination of Jewish sacred space" is a code-phrase for Jewish assimilation, the natural dynamic of a Jew engaged in society, where the politics of identity easily make particularism uncomfortable. Only through the fanatic zealotry of the Maccabees, including the murder of fellow Jews who identified strongly with Greek custom, did the Channukah story occur. 
  • Thanksgiving marks the Pilgrims taking of a land from its native inhabitants, one formerly marginalized group marginalizing another. Thanksgiving's celebration of "bounty and gratitude" forgets the Puritan's zealotry and their slaughter of those who already inhabited the "new" world. Only through the Pilgrim's fundamentalist world-view did the original Thanksgiving story take place.

The Maccabbees and the Puritans were zealots. Their violent thoughts and actions left a muddied legacy for Jews and for Americans. And, gevalt, my friends. We're both. How befuddling our sacred narratives can be!


What, then, are we to make of these days, these cold, dark days with contested, twisted narratives? How are we, as complicated modern Jews, to light our lights? What illumination pours through our windows into the world?


A popular Channukah song goes as follows:


"We have come to banish the darkness. / In our hands is light and fire. / Every one is a small light. / But together we are a mighty fire. / Out, darkness! / Run away before the power of light!"


Are we called, in the name of our cherished heritages, to shine brightly? Without a doubt. 

  • Being a Jew is a beautiful gift in the world. Being an American is a blessing. Both come with weighty obligations, which are their very best parts.
Must we learn from our troubled pasts to never again deny others the brightest light of all: their dignity?  Without a doubt. 
  • Being a modern Jew requires the ethical use of necessary and hard-earned power, constant vigilance to stand in solidarity with the world's most vulnerable, remembering the oppressed stranger we've frequently been in history. Being a modern American means bearing responsibility - doing Teshuvah - for enduring American social policies and processes that have much in common with Puritans. An American wields the most noble of our nation's sacred ideals at no one's expense.

Can we be Jews in the world, proud and particular, and at the same time Global Citizens, pluralist and present? Let's see if we can.


I think we've got that kind of Jewish power just waiting to be harnessed for the common good.


May this Channukah and Thanksgiving truly banish darkness, bring bounty, cultivate gratitude, and challenge us to see the light in others' eyes.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor ▶

Friday, November 22, 2013

Fwd: Chancellor Arnold Eisen Says "L'Chaim!" to Conservative Judaism

Dear JTS Community,

Following the publication of this year's Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project report—and the uproar that has since followed—I would like to offer my personal perspective on the current conversation.

I am addressing the questions raised and the challenges facing our community in an article on the Jewish Week website today and in its print edition on Friday, November 29. "Let's Drink a L'Chaim to Conservative Judaism" is both a personal statement and a message from JTS: we're here, we're learning and growing, and there's still a lot of work to be done.

Your thoughts on this essay, the new Pew report, or the current climate in the Jewish world are most welcome.


arnold eisen signature 2
Arnold M. Eisen
The Jewish Theological Seminary

Forward to a friend.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

David Wolpe on Ha'aretz: "Conservative Judaism: Not dead yet"

Conservative Judaism: Not dead yet

We all have a stake in renewing an intellectually honest and Torah-rooted Judaism that does not turn its back on the world.

By  Nov. 20, 2013 | 2:45 PM
'We all have a great stake in keeping liberal Judaism alive.'
Conservative institutions are looking for ways to revitalize the movement and make it more appealing to young Jews. Photo by United Synagogue / JTA Photo Service

Deaths are more common than resurrections and therefore safer to predict. The demise of Conservative Judaism is widely and confidently pronounced. No one seems buoyant about its prospects, given the clear signs of seemingly terminal sclerosis. But before we pen another 'requiem,' as was done by my friend and colleague Daniel Gordis ['Requiem for a Movement' in the Jewish Review of Books], it is worth keeping several things in mind.

First, the rise of Orthodox Judaism is to be expected. As the old Yiddish phrase has it, Jews are like other people only more so. In an age when literalist faith is surging in Christianity and Islam, Jews too can be expected to turn religiously rightward. But sociological trends are not invariable laws. Fifty years ago, people were assuming the end of Orthodoxy. Now they are predicting the dissolution of liberal Judaism. For millennia Jews have been forecasting the end of Judaism – as Simon Rawidowicz reminds us in his classic essay, "Israel the Ever Dying People." There are many and serious reasons to be worried about Conservative Judaism, but the power of prophecy was long ago snatched from us. The future's greatest delight is confounding the present.

Jews are not walled off from others. Amidst all the discussion about internal dynamics, remember that what happens to us has as much to do with the future of the lands in which we live as it does with our own communal arrangements. If you had asked a Jew in Germany in the 1930's about the future of the community, the skill of its leaders and Rabbis would have meant far less than the political storms that were stirring. Larger patterns or sudden crises can redefine faith communities.

Moreover, when the Jewish community mobilizes its resources it can accomplish astonishing things. I remember Elie Wiesel saying that when he began his career he hoped to help accomplish four impossible things: Creating a State of Israel, keeping alive the memory of the Shoah, freeing Soviet Jewry and maintaining Jewish continuity. The first three, he said, have astonishingly been accomplished. It is a little early to assume we cannot do four impossible things because we have thus far only ensured three.

We all have a great stake in keeping liberal Judaism alive. Jews from the liberal movements run the vast majority of the organizations, tirelessly seek to push the political process, lobby, fundraise and teach among non-Jews as well as Jews. Everything from AIPAC to Federations is the creation primarily of non-Orthodox Jewry. There are many and notable merits to the Jewish religious right, but widespread communal involvement has not been among them. A turn to wider involvement would be laudable, (though singularly implausible in the Yeshiva world) but such an opening will bring with it many of the challenges that Conservative and Reform Jews know all too well.

Then there is the simple question of truth. The intellectual power of modern biblical scholarship, of historical study, of science, is undeniable. Accepting computers and vaccines while disdaining carbon dating is intellectually schizophrenic. Sooner or later the traditionalist world will have to grapple with the power and implications of modernity. When it does, Conservative Judaism will be there, resources in hand, to help people contend with the meeting point of ancient traditions and contemporary innovation. When today's yeshiva student happens upon an old copy of "Origin of the Species," or learns more about ancient semitic societies, he will fall into the sturdy netting of Schechter and Heschel.

Daniel Gordis speaks about the mistakes the Conservative movement made along the way. He believes, with a considerable degree of justice, that it was so enchanted with the modern world that it largely abandoned the quest to create meaning in the lives of its adherents. The quest for meaning has not ended and it is not a function of numbers alone. There is a systolic/ diastolic movement to life. That which wanes today can wax tomorrow. Even the thinning out of ritual observance, for example, perhaps the most pointed indicator of Jewish decline, is not unidirectional. Some traditions, such as mikveh and pre-burial tahara, or purification of the body, have seen an upswing in many non-Orthodox communities as their poignancy has touched Jews previously unacquainted with the practices. A renewed understanding of the rapidly changing world and our place in it, can help revitalize institutions, spark intellectual inquiry, and reinvigorate a Judaism that does not turn its back on the world.

I am a Conservative Rabbi and the child of a Conservative Rabbi. Our successes were legion and our failures great. Liberal Judaism built remarkable institutions, summer camps, school and others, produced fine leaders and scholars and still saw many of its most gifted products abandon us. This is partly in the very nature of a free and mobile society. Shlomo Carlebach used to say, if he meets a student who says he is a Protestant, he knows he is a Protestant; if he meets a student who says he is a Catholic, he knows he is a Catholic. If he meets a student who says he is a human being, he knows he is a Jew. Utopian universalism is an intoxicating drug and has pulled many from Jewish moorings. An intellectually honest and Torah-rooted Judaism can be a potent counterforce, however. I witness its life changing possibilities every single day.

Israel should care deeply about the survival of Reform and Conservative Jewish continuity. Orthodox Jews too, should care, if we want to avoid a Jewish world that is insulated and unable (or uninterested) in influencing the larger world. You cannot be an or lagoyim (light to the nations) if you insist on being an or haganuz (hidden light). It is time to rise above triumphalism, lament and resignation. The proper response to the declining numbers is not a dismissal or a burial but call to action - put aside the sneers and the shovel and pick up a shofar. We have people to wake and work to do.

David Wolpe is Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @RabbiWolpe

Rabbi Menachem Creditor ▶